New Delhi, May 6: Amid the hardships being faced by thousands of migrant workers due to the lockdown, an RTI has revealed that the Chief Labour Commissioner’s office does not have data on migrant workers as yet.
The information has come to light at a time when special trains are being pressed into service from states like Maharashtra, Telangana, Karnataka, Rajasthan and Kerala to ferry stranded migrant workers to Odisha, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Jharkhand.
As of now, more than 130 trains have carried close to 1.25 lakh migrant workers to various destinations across the country since May 1, and there is demand for more such trains from different states, said a senior official from the Ministry of Railways.
However, there is no clarity on the strength of the migrant workforce as the data was not made available to Venkatesh Nayak of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, despite an RTI appeal.
The lockdown imposed by the government to contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic across India from March 25 is now in its third phase. It has hit migrant workers, among others, the hardest. They have not just lost their livelihood, many face the danger of losing their lives as well.
While many reports of their travails have been highlighted in print, electronic, digital and on social media, there has been confusion regarding the number of such workers. “The office of the Chief Labour Commissioner (CLC) under the Union Ministry of Labour and Employment claims it does not have state-wise or district-wise data despite the CLC directing regional heads based in 20 centres across the country to enumerate every migrant worker stranded due to the lockdown within three days during the second week of April,” said Nayak.
What led to the RTI intervention
Hundreds of thousands of men, women and their children, who had left their homes in other districts and states in search of gainful employment, suddenly found themselves jobless and penniless with an already stuttering economy gasping for breath due to the lockdown.
With inter-state borders sealed during the first two phases of the lockdown, they had few options before them. The workers were forced into government-run relief camps or shelters, or compelled to remain at their sites of work, or were simply bundled up in clusters near highways and other open spaces.
There have been reports of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers protesting being forcibly held against their will and demanding that they be allowed to return to their hometowns. Some tried to find their way back home by travelling inside water and milk tankers and concrete putty mixers, paying hefty sums of money to those who sought to profit from their suffering.
What has been even more heart-breaking are stories of migrant workers, walking alone or in groups, from hundreds to thousands of kilometers, under the blazing sun, to get back to their families, some even perishing with their homes within reach.
Amid this gargantuan humanitarian crisis, the Office of the Chief Labour Commissioner issued a circular to regional heads based in 20 centres across the country on April 8, seeking to collect data about every stranded migrant worker in every district and state.
Templates were issued for data capture during the enumeration process; both blue and white collar workers were to be enumerated in this manner. The regional heads were given three days to collect this data and send it to the CLC.
After waiting for almost two weeks in vain for the official announcement of the results of the enumeration exercise, Nayak said he filed an online RTI application for the data on April 21. Information regarding data about migrant workers who were stranded and placed in various temporary shelters/relief camps were sought under RTI Act, 2005.
"On May 5, 2020, a day after the third phase of the lockdown began, the RTI Online Facility sent me an automated email stating that my RTI application had been disposed of. When I checked the status of my RTI application on the website, instead of a proper response with his name and signature, the Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) had furnished the following reply: ‘Your Request has been disposed of by this office’," Nayak said.
There was no indication whether Nayak’s RTI application would be transferred to any other section or public authority, or if any effort would be made to collate the information from the enumeration exercise and make it available to the public.
The CLC CPIO's one-line reply raises serious doubts about the availability of data about migrant workers, despite the enumeration exercise.
The author is a Delhi-based journalist and can be contacted at [email protected]. The views are personal.